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10 Questions with Sarah Chesney

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

Sarah Chesney, our new General Manager, talks about her musical background, experience in musicology and arts management, and what she enjoys most about her new role with us.

1. What was your first experience of Chamber Music?

I first encountered chamber music at high school. Friends I’d met through playing in larger youth ensembles cajoled me into entering the annual secondary schools competition. While I enjoy being part of an orchestra – which can feel like being part of a giant musical machine – chamber music is still my favourite type of music to play.

2. You’re not a string player, so what’s your musical background?

I studied clarinet at university, but now I really only play with friends. Instead, I found myself drawn to musicology, which I continued to study overseas. I’ve had stints teaching clarinet to beginners, too, which is always rewarding. When a group of more than 30 children finishes the class with a (mostly) in-tune ‘Jingle Bells’ and all their reeds intact there’s definitely a sense of accomplishment!

3. You mentioned being drawn to musicology, what particularly interests you about it?

Musicology combines my musical, literary, historical, and language interests. On the one hand, I get to work up close with the notes in a score, analysing what about it might induce a particular response from a listener or performer. On the other hand, I use historical contexts to build a bigger picture of music’s role in society. I’ve taught 19th-century music at the New Zealand School of Music, and discovering the new perspectives each student brings to the same (old!) music is always interesting.

4. Do you have a favourite era or genre of music?

Most of my research focusses on 19th-century Italian opera. Looking at how opera slots into – or challenges – political and cultural contexts fascinates me, as do the ideas and events of 19th-century history. For me, there’s also nothing quite like experiencing opera live; it seems to consume all your senses at once. Many of the operas that premiered in the 19th century have never been revived for good reason, but I haven’t quite given up the hope of turning up an excellent, long-forgotten opera from the depths of an archive somewhere!

5. And arts management? How have you ended up at the New Zealand String Quartet?

I’ve returned to the arts sector after getting in a good dose of report-writing at the Ministry of Education and Tertiary Education Commission, and it’s wonderful to be back working with such an energised and passionate group of people. Previously, I worked in the Artistic department at the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, both before and after heading overseas for a few years. My last role there involved planning the ‘where’ and the ‘when’ for the orchestra’s NZ-wide tours and collaborative projects with other arts organisations, so NZSQ’s role as a nationally-touring ensemble is familiar territory.

6. What were some highlights working with the NZSO?

One of the performance highlights for me was the concert production of Wagner’s opera Die Walkure a few years ago. I was initially dubious about how Wagner’s work would speak to an audience without the staging, since the visual element of opera was such a crucial part of his vision for the work. In the end, the superb singers – both NZ and overseas artists – were spellbinding in their performances. I was completely swept up and didn’t miss the staging at all. What’s more, touring the concert opera was a massive undertaking behind the scenes; seeing it all come together for such a stand-out event made it worthwhile.

7. What about your musical experiences outside NZ?

I was lucky enough to be in London during the Proms a couple of times. Attending classical music concerts back-to-back might sound overwhelming, but I found it inspiring. When you leap from an historically-informed Baroque concert to a newly-commissioned work with electronic instruments you find yourself listening in new ways and, I think, tuning into similarities, rather than differences across the art-form. In Italy, I spent some time poking around music archives for research at times that conveniently coincided with opera festivals. The opera houses themselves are exquisite, and I managed to hear works performed that are unlikely to be staged in NZ. And I say hear, rather than see intentionally - from the more affordable seats at the back of a box, you’ve got a much better view of the curtains than the stage!

8. What are you looking forward to most in your new role?

I’m enjoying the variety of this job so far. I find seeing projects evolve from the initial ideas to the final event satisfying, whether that’s a self-presented tour, or a collaborative education workshop. Plus, I get to talk and write about, not to mention listen to, lots of fantastic music – core 18th and 19th-century repertoire alongside new commissions from NZ composers. I’m looking forward to helping to bring the NZSQ to new audiences, showing them how chamber music can be everything from uplifting and therapeutic to profoundly thought-provoking. And did I already say that the enthusiasm of the NZSQ musicians and staff is infectious?

9. Which upcoming NZSQ performances are you most excited about?

We’re performing with Rodger Fox’s Big Band in April – percolating swing style with string colours and inspired by the work of iconic jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. It promises to be an awesome tour. Then only a month later, the NZSQ are playing the late NZ composer Jack Body’s 2009 work Bai sanxian, an atmospheric work inspired by the sound palette of Indonesian Gamelan.

10. Outside of music and work, what do you spend time doing?

I try and go for bush walks and trail runs as often as I can. Happily, I live near some great areas of bush where native birds are thriving. I also play a bit of sport, mainly touch and netball, both with more enthusiasm than skill.

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